Archive for the ‘somatic bodywork’ Category

I am psyched. I gave my first talk out in the world beyond the classrooms of The College of Alameda and it was thrilling. Eight women from the Women’s Motivational Meetup in Sacramento, hosted by Griffin Toffler, gave me their attention, listened to my lecture, and participated in a writing exercise at the library in Fair Oaks. Afterward, I felt so happy because I was doing what I felt I was put here on earth to do—tell my story, invite others to find out what’s holding them back, and share some tools that might help them to break through to their power.

Two major points keep surfacing when I think of what I want to discuss in this first post of the new year: belief and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). At age fifty, from my exploration in writing about my infant surgery, I learned that I was living my life from a false premise—I was broken and incapable of being fixed. This thought or wrong belief about myself sabotaged me at every turn. It had been unconscious all my life, operating below the radar, and so this lack of belief in my strength and power undermined me mercilessly. It’s difficult to write about this even now; grief surfaces, sadness. How painful it is to accept that I believed this about myself and acted from this false and destructive premise.

Writing about my infant surgery also helped me realize that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had had it all my life since the operation for pyloric stenosis at 26 days old. Amazing!  I sensed that I might have it, my lover hinted that I might, but I was too frightened to investigate this possibility. In doing research for the memoir I was writing, I learned about the history of infant surgery and anesthesia, the nature of trauma, and the condition called PTSD. I read many books and scientific articles, which helped me realize what had happened to me. My hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, re-enactments, difficulty sleeping, jaw pain, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, self-harming, eating disorders, and delinquent behavior as a teen were all explained by this syndrome. What a relief to finally be able to identify these symptoms and pinpoint a cause. And what a relief to know that these expressions of myself aren’t really me; they are actually due to a condition that is caused by unresolved trauma.

So here’s what I wanted the group of women at the library to know or get support for knowing—that it is possible to ReStory Your Life. It is possible to identify a deeply held belief or set of beliefs that might be holding you back. Talking is often not the best way to discover it. Through writing, artwork, and/or somatic work, allow yourself to learn what belief is obstructing you from being all that you know yourself to be. This idea was never yours in the first place. Work with this misperception to understand it and then change it. You are a most profound and beautiful soul. You are a creation of the universe. What is your real belief about yourself? Discover it. Find freedom after trauma.

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One can always be more free. As the year comes to an end and 2013 is upon us, it’s a good time to let go of things one doesn’t want to bring into the new era.

As a baby, I got wired for trauma. Being operated on at 26 days old for pyloric stenosis, a blockage in the stomach, set the stage. As a baby, my belly was cut open and part of my stomach actually drawn out of my body to fix the problem. In many ways, I am still frozen, holding my body rigidly as I cope with a trauma that occurred 60 years ago. Amazing!  It’s called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

So earlier this morning, I was sitting in bed with my legs extended, preparing for meditation. I settled in, covering myself with a blanket, allowing my body to sink into the earth and be held as I listened for my heartbeat and tuned into my breath. I realized though that my face was stuck as if it was frozen from the cheekbones up, including my nose. My lips were pulled back and my nose and brow were literally numb. I was smiling a weird lips-pressed-together-and-pulled-back type of smile, more like a snarl, and breathing as shallowly as possible.

What was going on?  I tracked the tension in the rest of my body–my shoulders, hips, chest–and realized that I was straining against something. Flash! In all likelihood, I was straining against whatever hospitals use to tie down infants who are going to be operated on. Back then, my head was secured to the table and here I was in 2012 still fighting to free myself.

Often in my morning meditation, I’m so busy dealing with the somatic repercussions of infant surgery that it’s a challenge to allow a meditative state to kick in. Some days, I simply deal with what I call somatic freeze and other times, I break through to information that my higher self has to offer.

One way I work with this rigid state is to allow my breath into the frozen area. I don’t forcefully bring breath in by taking a deep breath but simply allow my natural breath to return. I invite a quiet breath movement. In this process, I actually began to feel my nose and to exercise face muscles that I didn’t even know were there.

Another strategy to cope with PTSD freeze is imagery. During my meditation, a liberating fantasy brought excitement and a feeling of power.

I am a baby strapped to a gurney before surgery, wanting to escape. I rise and break the bands holding my head, shoulders, hips, and feet and grab the surgeon’s scalpel. It becomes a sword. I’m standing on the gurney now, a super-powered baby swinging her sword, daring anyone to approach. Oh, what fun!  I love watching their shocked and frightened faces. They run out of the operating room and I smash up the place. Oh, more fun!  

So am I suffering from frozen rage?  Am I stuck in that moment of facing my own mortality and being unable to do anything to save myself?  Yes!

I may have been given a local anesthetic before the surgery. I may have had no anesthesia but received instead a paralyzing drug. In this case, I would have been awake but incapable of fighting. Still I would have tried to be free. Certainly, my nervous system cried out, escape! Perhaps before being administered general anesthesia, I fought against being tied down. Since I had been starving for weeks and weighed only four pounds, I was pretty weak. I doubt though that I was fully anesthetized; the level of tension and stress in my body suggests I wasn’t.

My body has been engaged in a lifelong fight with itself and for the last 10 years, through meditation and Middendorf Breathwork, I’ve been finding freedom from this struggle. I am discovering my power. I am learning that more freedom is always possible. For 2013, I am getting a new face–less startle, more real. More truly me.

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Last Thursday, a dermatologist cut out a melanoma on the back of my leg just below my calf. It was a slow spreading kind and since I caught it early, I am told that it hasn’t metastasized. That’s the good news. I didn’t think the surgery and recovery were going to be a big deal. But I got twenty stitches instead of the projected seven, and I have to spend two weeks with my leg up on a pillow. And yes, it hurts when I walk. A much bigger deal than I thought it would be.

Here’s the part though that I want to discuss. As I lay down on the table while the doctor suited up, I had an experience that helped me understand how I coped with my infant surgery. The journal entry that I wrote shortly after the surgery explains it best.

What a gift that I was only given a local and so was conscious and aware of my body’s response to being cut. The old somatic pattern came raging back. When I lay down for the surgery, my jaw went through a series of unlockings–spasms of about twenty shakes until it settled down. In order for my jaw to relax, my bottom and top teeth could not be aligned; I had to let my bottom jaw slide out to the left.

My jaw spasmed once more–shudders of many shakes–and settled back down. The only way I was comfortable during the skin surgery was to let my bottom jaw slide left a half-inch, which made an awkward fit for my teeth.  Also when I lay down for the skin surgery, my right scapula (shoulder-blade) locked–a terrific force that gripped. I was eventually able to relax it.

All my life, my jaw has been misaligned due to gritting my teeth from the infant surgery. My teeth and jaw absorbed the pain. Gritting nightly stayed with me since that time. The pain must have been extraordinary to tense me up like that, to burn it into my brain, to create such an entrenched pattern. My gums weakened and made me susceptible to gum disease. As I got older, my molars became brittle and cracked. All my molars are crowned. And the scapula lock dates back to the early crisis as well. 

In my life, when I lay down for sleep, my body  goes into lockdown unconsciously. My jaw clenches and my right shoulder-blade locks, which has me breathing in a way that minimizes breath movement in the area of my infant incision. I became aware of this pattern years ago in my study of Middendorf Breath Work, which has helped me become aware of my outdated  somatic patterns and move beyond them.

I have come full circle: incision then, incision now. Let me move into a new future–no more cutting. Let my somatic pattern be released once and for all. Let me find a new way to hold my body in trust and in freedom. Let the old electricity and the old alarms be just that–old. Let me release the trauma buried so deeply in my body and brain. Let me be trauma free. Freedom calls.

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I have lived a life that is very different from what most people must experience. I have lived in the Land of Hypervigilance.

Each morning shortly after waking, I do stretches that an osteopath taught me. These movements manage a painful hip that cries out when under stress. Yesterday lying on my back, having finished the first set of stretches, I happened to tilt my head and notice a beautiful sight out the window behind me:  the tips of several tall branches golden in sunlight waving in the wind, framed by blue sky. I was mesmerized by this image. How many times had I lain on the floor to do these stretches and never looked up in this way. It was a gesture of freedom, of abandon, of a lack of hypervigilance. It was an act of simply looking without trying to control anything, without trying to protect myself from any circumstance. Relaxed is what most people call it.

But I have lived in the Land of Hypervigilance. Life in this place is very, very different. When I was eighteen and home from college for the Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to go to for a walk and check out the high school football game. I stood outside the fence and reflected back on my senior year; I had been a baton twirler and had often performed at half-time. The field looked small. I only recognized a few people. My life had moved on. I left the stadium to walk in the neighborhood and sat down on a rock at the side of the road, where I happened to tilt my head back and look up. I saw the most amazing sight: golden-leaved branches, each leaf shaking in the wind, causing the light to reflect in an amplified and excited way. The entire sky seemed filled with intense, shimmering gold. I sat entranced.

Suddenly the sound of a car approaching scared me out of my revery. I sat up straight, berating myself. How could I have let myself drift like that?  How long had I been daydreaming?  Time had lost its tick; I had been living in eternity, but this type of freedom was alien and threatening. What foolishness, I scolded myself!  That car could have run over my feet. Had anyone noticed my lapse?  Worried, I scanned the streets, driveways, and windows of the nearby homes. I must have looked so silly! Hypervigilant self-consciousness was my address, and I was scrambling back home at fast as I could.

What is the difference between my experience of beauty when I was eighteen and that of yesterday?  This recent lapse was a joyful one that filled me with gratitude and wonder and hinted that more beauty awaits when I stray from my visual patterns. I am becoming aware of a new way of being. When I was eighteen, I was on guard 24/7, my body on somatic sentry duty, each cell brandishing a sword ready to strike. I had no idea of the armor I wore. After all, the incision at three weeks old was something my breath and body remembered; I had no conscious memory of the assault.

Now I have these life-saving words to help me understand and manage my experience: post-traumatic stress (PTS). Recognizing a symptom of PTS is the first step in coping. When I become aware of my hypervigilance, I can calm my racing heart and release my held breath and body tension. I can feel compassion for myself and feel grateful for having access to the Land of Reality. Responding to a symptom rather than reacting unconsciously is the difference. I am no longer an unwitting prisoner of the Land of Hypervigilance. When there, I can leave. I no longer have to live there.

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Right before I left for Iowa to attend The Examined Life Conference, I saw my chiropractor. She has helped me for the past year recover from a concussion and whiplash, so I am in deep gratitude to her. But after this particular adjustment, I had a problem. As I lay on my back, she suddenly pulled me up by the shoulders in such way that made me lock my hips in defense. She did it again. I felt discomfort but didn’t think it a big deal at the time. It was, however, a big deal the next day.

My  back and hips were so sore that I couldn’t make a move without pain. Here I was preparing for my plane flight to Iowa, contemplating hauling luggage around the airport, and I couldn’t even sit down comfortably.  At first, I was clueless about  what had brought on this condition. I thought and thought about any strange movement I had made or whether I had pushed myself to move in a way that had hurt me. Nothing came to mind. Then the light bulb lit up. It was that sudden move my chiropractor had made.

I felt angry.  Had she warned me of what she was going to do, I would have been ok. But I was expecting her to do what she always did when I was on my back–adjust my cerebral spinal fluid by a gentle lifting of the head, accompanied by my taking deep breaths. I was in relatively good shape when I walked into her office and I was in pretty bad shape a day later. It felt right and natural to be angry because indeed, I’d been violated, albeit unintentionally.

The next day, my neighbor, a Reiki* practitioner, suggested I let her work on me. After an hour of healing touch, trust returned. As I walked home, I felt my feet firmly on the ground and heard these words: My body is sacred. She had helped me regain a feeling of wholeness and integrity. She had rebalanced my body. I still felt pain, but it had diminished. Most importantly, I felt that a negative energy was gone. In its place was love.

This experience of injury and healing was such a great lesson for me. I thought back to what it must have been like for me to undergo a stomach surgery before I was even a month old. At that time I was violated, no matter the intention and the circumstances, and must have felt so angry. And when no one was available to soothe me in recovery–my mother was relegated to looking in through a window from the hallway and the nurses were so afraid of infection they dared not linger–I must have felt hopeless. And if my pain was not properly managed, which seems likely due to the PTS symptoms I experience, I must have gone numb–a sort of fugue state, if you will. Another name for it? Depression.

As I was pondering all this after my wonderful Reiki session, I realized that babies who’ve experienced trauma need some type of ceremony to help them regain trust, balance, and most of all, a feeling of the sanctity of their own bodies. Sacredness must be re-established. Touch is the key to this act of reconstitution. Loving touch must be a part of the healing. There must be some way that hospitals incorporate this understanding and make an effort to provide care. Touch must be administered as wisely and carefully as medicine. Otherwise, the wounding continues. What was meant to heal creates lifelong disturbance, countering the very intention of well meaning doctors and medical staff and the practice of medicine itself.

* “Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing” (International Center for Reiki Training <www.reiki.org>)

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Yesterday, I had a mud bath at a spa in Calistoga, California. I lay in the clay, peat moss, and 104 degree mineral water for ten minutes, rinsed, and lay wrapped in a warm blanket in a dark room–a cocoon of sorts–for a half hour. As I relaxed, I realized it was a good time to tell my cells that they could stop living a somatically-stressed life. The operation I had as an infant happened long ago and it was time that they stop marinating in PTS energy. In other words, it was time to be normal.

Later, lying on a lounge chair on the spa roof, I saw a large bird circling high in the heavens and heard a songbird serenading in a nearby tree. I stretched my limbs and the sun warmed me completely. I felt uninhibited and free. My middle, the place around my scar, seemed unstuck. A density that I have always felt there was no longer compressing me; lightness had wafted in.

For a few moments, I felt as though I never had an operation. My middle existed in equal proportion to every other part of my body. A moment of normalcy had arrived –feeling balanced, light, and free. I was simply me, Wendy, happy to be healthy. Happy to be alive, enjoying everything we have been given.

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Do not be afraid of me.

I am your body, your smell.

I soothe you. Come close,

inhale, comfort yourself.


Do not be afraid. Not like

your mother who would not

bury her face in your baby belly,

afraid you’d pop and go dead.


Let love press its face

into your gut, your soft underside.


Don’t you love how you feel,

those mushy mounds. Your earth smell?


Don’t be afraid to love yourself.


Go where you love to go. Do

what you love to do. Now

is the best time. Take yourself

to coral reefs, tidepools, the creatures

of the sand.


Take yourself to the lands

of your ancestors. Leap into water

of turquoise. Rejoice in life’s bounty—

that richness waiting for you to

Trust, Take, Be Free.

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